The third season of BBC’s Call the Midwife — which wrapped up last month in the U.K. and begins on March 30 on PBS in the States — attracted an audience of more than 10 million viewers when it aired across the Atlantic, a figure that puts it on nearly equal footing with Downton Abbey. But that series gets far more attention than this subtle and superb period drama.
Set in 1950s East End London and based on Jennifer Worth’s memoirs, Call the Midwife tracks the lives of a group of young midwives and the sisterhood of nuns with whom they work at Nonnatus House. Babies are born, labors — both real and figurative — undertaken, and love blossoms and fades. It is an extraordinary show about birth and death and what comes in between. As written by Heidi Thomas and her talented staff, Call the Midwife manages to be both warm and profound in equal measure, opening a window to a time long gone yet offering a glimpse into the eternal and the transitory. It’s tea cozy television with a very deep soul.
But if you haven’t yet watched Call the Midwife (or have already fallen in love with its easy charms), here are seven reasons why it is worth watching. (Warning: Minor spoilers ahead.)
1. The show offers not only the varying perspectives of four very distinct characters, but also from two points in time.
While most definitely an ensemble drama, Call the Midwife most often utilizes the perspectives of the four young midwives at the story’s center: confident Jenny Lee (Jessica Raine), sophisticated Beatrix “Trixie” Franklin (Helen George), clumsy Camilla “Chummy” Fortescue-Cholmondeley-Browne (Miranda Hart), and meek Cynthia Miller (Bryony Hannah).
The quartet of woman could not possibly be more different from each another, yet somehow, their dynamic works remarkably well: As they sip Babycham and listen to records after hours, they embody a certain spirit of unity and power. Raine’s Jenny — based on memoirist Worth — anchors the show in both a physical and emotional sense, seeing as it’s narrated by “mature Jenny” (Vanessa Redgrave), looking back on her life at Nonnatus House. The duality of perspectives presented, the innocence of contemporary Jenny juxtaposed against the experience of her future counterpart, gives the show a patina of gravitas. It helps as well that the disembodied voice belongs to Redgrave, whose heartfelt narration is one of the hallmarks of the show.
2. Chummy may have once offered comic relief, but her arc this season is nothing short of gut-wrenching.
There are many reasons why Hart’s Chummy has been a breakout character over the three seasons the comedian has played the role. But the physical comedy that the pratfall-prone actress displayed early on (like while learning to ride a bicycle) has been replaced with emotional depth and pathos. And in the third season, Hart delivers a staggering performance that is at once jaw-dropping and heartbreaking for its fierceness and nuance. That it conflates her fraught dynamic with her emotionally distant mother, Jenny’s innate tenderness, and a stunning look at dying with dignity gives her arc a palpable sense of importance and grace. Hart may be known for her humorous roles, but as Chummy, she delivers several scenes that establish her as a serious dramatic actor and reduce the viewers to jagged sobs.
3. The journey of Sister Bernadette, as she leaves the sisterhood to take a vow of marriage, is incredible.
When we were first introduced to Sister Bernadette in the first season, I had no idea that the young nun’s storyline would prove to be one of the most compelling and insightful looks at the tug of war between the religious and secular ever to appear on television. As played by the divine Laura Main, Sister Bernadette — now called Shelagh Turner — is a standout character of the highest order, not least of which for the heartache and realism that Main infuses into the role.
As she falls in love with Dr. Turner (Stephen McGann), she is forced to choose between the pull of her heart and the vocation for which she left the secular world behind. On a lesser show, this storyline might have been incredibly saccharine or exploitative, but here, Shelagh’s struggle to find her own path and to choose romantic love was rendered as something incredibly poignant and powerful. Post-marriage to Dr. Turner, Shelagh continues to question her role in the world in Season 3, finding that there are always hard choices to be made and that secrets loom even between the best of individuals.
4. The births are sometimes beautiful, sometimes terrifying, and sometimes both.
For a show that is about midwifery, there is bound to be a lot of birth along the way and Call the Midwife excels in these scenes, which depict the joy, horror, fear, and beauty of bringing a life into the world with a degree of realism that can be shocking at times. (I watched Season 2 of Midwife with a pregnant wife, who found herself alternately intrigued and alarmed by some of the deliveries.)
Each birth has its own risks and pitfalls, and the show is careful to show both sides of the process, allowing the viewer to see the same event from both the midwife’s perspective as well as that of the mother. But the show doesn’t stray into the realm of melodrama: There’s a frankness and a richness to these scenes that can bring tears to your eyes, whether or not you have ever had a child yourself. (But you may find yourself wishing that you had one of these remarkable midwives with you in the delivery room.)
5. The new characters are just as intriguing as the mainstays.
There have been some departures along the way (Jane Sutton, we hardly knew you!) and quite a few additions to the cast of Call the Midwife over the last three seasons. But what the show has excelled at, among its other virtues, is adding new characters who don’t feel like window dressing, but who further the series’ scope, like brusque new midwife Patsy Mount (Emerald Fennel), innocent Sister Winifred (Victoria Yeates), Jenny’s paramour Alec Jesmond (Leo Staar), and dishy curate Tom Hereward (Jack Ashton), who quickly catches Trixie’s eye. What each of these new characters has in common is that they feel innately organic to the narrative; they’re never intruders, but rather indispensable extensions of the world in which the characters live. And the third season broadens out the world of the show and adds a sense of modernity that is in keeping with the era in which it’s set.
6. The show sensitively handles social issues with a deft hand.
Call the Midwife doesn’t fall back on melodramatic staples, but rather fiercely and bravely examines the darker recesses of the human condition: The struggles of a new mother in the throes of puerperal psychosis are investigated with intense clarity and humanity, as is another storyline involving a woman suffering from severe agoraphobia and PTSD. The show never shies away from its unflinching look at the lives of those people whom it encounters: mothers and fathers, husbands and wives, midwives and doctors. Another episode deals with an institutionalized woman with Down syndrome who authorities discover is pregnant; again, rather than offer a twee solution, Call the Midwife handles the plot with characteristic emotional intelligence and bravery. It’s these moments that give the show its inherent weight; they’re one-episode plots that are wrapped up, but their resolutions never feel tidy or small. They’re facets of a larger prism through which to view the human experience.
7. The nuns have secrets of their own, as well as hidden inner lives.
The three elder nuns at the center of Call the Midwife — saintly Sister Julienne (Jenny Agutter), stern Sister Evangelina (Pam Ferris), mercurial Sister Monica Joan (Judy Parfitt) — each have their own rich inner lives, which are slowly parsed out over time. There is a hint here about the life of privilege possibly led by senile Sister Monica Joan and a whisper of tragedy in the life of Sister Evangelina. While Shelagh’s transformation from Sister Bernadette — first embodied in a scene where she beautifully removes her wimple, revealing the face of a young woman who is envious of the freedoms experienced by the secular midwives down the hall — unfolded over the course of two seasons, the backstories of the other nuns remain shrouded in mystery.
These are stories to be leisurely unwound as one would a skein of yarn. There is history there — loss and grief, joy and pleasure — that is hidden beneath the surface, waiting to be explored. And Call the Midwife will, in time, reveal just what made these women take the calling to their vocation, the lives they left behind, and the secrets they too keep. It is a show, ultimately, about women and sisterhood, the common bonds of the delivery room, and of the joy of bringing life into the world and caring for it.